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Copyright Week continues with a defense of the public domain

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During the week of Jan. 13,  digital rights activists including the Electronic Frontier Foundation are focused on promoting responsible copyright policy online. They’ve dubbed the event Copyright Week, and each day will focus on a different aspect of the way copyright affects digital lives. 

Copyright Week continued Tuesday by recognizing the importance of public ownership with regards to creative and academic works. The EFF has labeled day two of the event “Building and Defending a Robust Public Domain.” 

When it comes to the free expression of thoughts and ideas, the Internet has transformed perceptions of what constitutes free speech. This is an important issue for activists, as the backbone of any free society is the political right to communicate without fear of government reprisal. Over the past two decades, more than 2.4 billion people (approximately 37 percent of the world’s population) have begun using the Internet. As it exists, the Internet thrives on the free exchange of content, which is at odds with intellectual property (IP) laws as they apply in the physical world. 

Attempts to police the sharing of online content have resulted in disputes between free speech advocates, industry lobbyists and governments. Activists oppose new regulations that could impose harsh penalties for sharing content and interfere with the Internet’s ability to foster creativity and the sharing of knowledge.

The Internet is important to the public domain, which represents the free collective intellectual and creative works of a society—the music, literature, art that is no longer owned by a corporation, group or individual. It allows the works to be absorbed, distributed, and adapted by more people than ever before. Preserving this system from being crippled by IP laws is important for many reasons, but primarily, it’s understood that the benefits to society far outweigh the economic benefits of maintaining their private property status. 

As an example, Beethoven’s 9th Symphony is a treasured musical masterpiece and entirely available for public use. Anyone can attempt to reproduce this music, remix it, use it as a soundtrack, or even exploit it for financial gain, just as Stanley Kubrick did in the film A Clockwork Orange. More importantly, the rights to Beethoven’s work (in its entirety) cannot be purchased, therefore his music cannot be privatized and controlled. The public will never have to petition an individual, or a corporation, to experience Beethoven’s music, nor do they ever have to pay a fee to perform it in public. Likewise, no person can be sued for charging the public to hear them play the 9th Symphony (regardless of how poorly they perform it). In this context, it’s easy to illustrate how the protection of the public domain is vital to cultivating a vibrant culture.

Music and art masterpieces aren’t the only things protected by a strong public domain policy. Literature and scholarly works too have their place and play an important societal function, particularly with regards to nonprofit education and scientific research. 

In 2011, Internet activist Aaron Swartz was taken into custody by the Secret Service for rapidly downloading academic papers from the for-profit digital library JSTOR. While no one can say for certain what Swartz’s intentions were, based on his known philosophies regarding the freedom of information, it’s likely he intended to publish the materials online so that the public could gain access. Information activists have argued that scholarly research, and educational materials in general, should not be monetized, but exist in the public domain for the betterment of society. 

It is also generally understood that, in a democracy, laws themselves should always exist in the public domain. However, most federal court documents in the United States are published online behind a government paywall known as the PACER system. While these documents belong to the public, users can be charged by the government for accessing them. Obviously, this disenfranchises citizens who are involved in legal proceedings, but can’t afford to access court decisions relevant to their cases. 

In 2008, Swartz was investigated by the FBI for downloading 2.8 million court documents (1 percent) from the PACER system and releasing them to the public. Later, a Firefox extension known as RECAP (PACER backwards) was created that uploaded any documents purchased from PACER to the Internet Archive, thus entering them into a free public domain.

Copyright Week coincides with the anniversary of the hugely successful 2012 Internet blackout that defeated the most controversial online copyright bill in U.S. history, the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA). However, this exercise in public outreach also comes during negotiations of a multinational trade agreement that could resurrect some of SOPA’s most radical copyright proposals. Groups like the EFF have warned that the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) could have devastating effects on the public domain by the introduction of international IP standards that many feel are biased towards corporations and against the public interest. 

Ironically, the negotiating texts of the TPP are not available to the public. A draft proposal of the trade agreement’s IP chapter was only made available after WikiLeaks released it. The draft reveals the TPP would establish new standards for how alleged criminals are prosecuted for violating copyright law. While activists and members of the public have been locked out of negotiations, lobbyists from the entertainment industry (responsible for the creation of SOPA) have been given access to the negotiators. 

Those who oppose the TPP view it as a kind of intellectual property coup, with education and innovation taking a back seat to the interests of for-profit corporations. For many years, entertainment industry representatives, such as the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), have lobbied to criminalize any unauthorized use of IP, and to punish offenders with large fines or imprisonment. And while the public has not been allowed to participate in any way during the TPP negotiations, MPAA officials, who pay hundreds of millions in political contributions yearly, have.

In politics, the only thing that can rival financial donations is an outraged constituency. In 2012, the Internet defeated major industry donors when they rose up against SOPA. In order to stop the TPP, a similar action is needed, and that’s exactly what the activists behind Copyright Week intend to accomplish. 

Illustration by Leonardo da Vinci (Remixed by Dell Cameron)